Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010 Thomistic Seminar

The Witherspoon Institute is sponsoring its fifth annual Thomistic Seminar this August, on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, for graduate students in philosophy and related disciplines interested in the relationship between analytic philosophy and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. This year’s theme is “Aesthetics and Morality,” and participating faculty include John Haldane, Thomas Hibbs, Anthony O’Hear, and Candace Vogler. The application deadline is April 15 and more information is available here.

2010 Gifford Lectures

The 2010 Gifford Lectures will be given by Roger Scruton on the theme “The Face of God.” More information is available here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

“We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

Richard Dawkins in 2006:

Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692… All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affections for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defense, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).

The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America… We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. This is so counter-intuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.

(The God Delusion, pp. 315-16)

Richard Dawkins in 2010:

"Should [Pope Benedict XVI] be investigated for how cases of abuse were handled under his watch as archbishop of Munich or as the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer?"

Yes, of course he should. This former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares to set foot outside his tinpot fiefdom of the Vatican…

"Should the pope resign?"

No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly - ideally - qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds… a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Stupak’s enablers?

Bart Stupak has described himself as a “devout Catholic” and “pro-life Democrat.” Until his despicable sell-out last Sunday, many Catholics and pro-lifers were prepared to believe him. Christopher Badeaux at The New Ledger lays the blame for Stupak’s betrayal at the feet of the American Catholic bishops. “For essentially my entire lifetime,” Badeaux writes, “the Democratic Party has made as one of its governing planks that women have an inherent right to murder their children. Catholic Democrats have not, with a tiny handful of exceptions, bothered to even murmur a protest; the most prominent among them have taken up that position as their own.” Meanwhile, “the men who are supposed to stand against evil every waking moment of their lives appear more concerned about the environment, about immigrant rights, about the death penalty.” The bishops’ emphasis on these secondary issues, coupled with their failure to discipline pro-abortion Catholic politicians, has made them in Badeaux’s view “enablers” of those who, like Stupak, feel justified in compromising on abortion in the interests of pursuing what they take to be other social and political goods.

This is not entirely fair; the bishops have loudly, repeatedly, and consistently condemned abortion, and the United States Council of Catholic Bishops called on Congress to vote down the new health care bill if it failed to prohibit public funding of abortion. The bishops do not seem to be less concerned with abortion than with other issues. Still, Badeaux’s complaint seems to me to have merit – not with respect to every individual bishop, to be sure, but certainly with respect to the USCCB itself. For that body has also loudly, repeatedly, and consistently taken positions on several other matters of public controversy (such as the issues Badeaux mentions) in a fashion that has likely led many Catholics to think – quite mistakenly – that said positions are binding on Catholics and of equal weight with opposition to abortion. And that in turn has likely helped to generate a false impression that where opposition to abortion and the pursuit of some other political end come into conflict, a Stupak-like “trade off” can be justified.

Consider the health care issue. As I have said, before the health care bill vote, the USCCB urged Congress either to alter the bill to prevent federal funding of abortion or to vote the bill down. (The USCCB also objected to the bill’s failure to extend coverage to illegal immigrants.) But the letter in which this request was made also emphasized that “for decades, the United States Catholic bishops have supported universal health care,” that “the Catholic Church teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential for human life and dignity,” and that it is only “with deep regret” that the bishops must oppose passage of the bill “unless these fundamental flaws are remedied” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, the impression these words leave the reader with – whether the bishops intended this or not – is that, were abortion (and coverage of illegal immigrants) not at issue, the moral teaching of the Catholic Church would require the passage of the health care bill in question, or something like it. In fact the teaching of the Church requires no such thing. Indeed, I would argue (see below) that while the Church’s teaching does not rule out in principle a significant federal role in providing health care, a bill like the one that has just passed would be very hard to justify in light of Catholic doctrine, even aside from the abortion question. Nevertheless, as I say, the bishops’ language would surely leave the average reader with the opposite impression. And as the bishops themselves remind us, they have “supported universal health care” for “decades,” in statements that also would leave the unwary average reader with the impression that Catholic moral teaching strictly requires as a matter of justice the passage some sort of federal health care legislation. On the day Obama signed the bill into law, Cardinal Francis George, a bishop with a reputation for orthodoxy, urged vigilance on the matter of abortion while declaring that “we applaud the effort to expand health care to all.”

Now, suppose you are Bart Stupak, or some other Catholic in government. You are ideologically prone to favor statist solutions to social problems, and under constant pressure from your fellow Democrats to support them in any event. You are not a theologian, and must rely on what prominent churchmen say on matters of current public controversy in order to determine what the Church’s teaching requires of you. They tell you that the Church teaches that abortion is tantamount to murder, and if you are remotely serious about your Catholic faith – as Nancy Pelosi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Ted Kennedy, Rudy Giuliani, et al. manifestly are not, but Stupak and his ilk at least appeared to be – then you will dutifully oppose legalized abortion. But these same churchmen also tell you – or seem to, anyway, if you are a layman not versed in moral theology – that it would be a grave injustice not to vote for an expansive federal health care bill if ever you have an opportunity to do so. Now you are confronted with a situation in which you have to choose between what seem to be two grave moral imperatives: to prevent federal funding of abortion, and to vote for what might be the only significant federal health care bill likely to come your way for the foreseeable future. Your conscience tells you to do both if you can, and there is in any event enormous political pressure on you to vote for the bill. Obama’s promise of an executive order, manifestly flimsy though it is, provides just the way out you need.

Is this how Stupak reasoned? I cannot claim to know, of course; and both this video clip from last year and his statements since the vote make it hard to believe his prolonged public hand-wringing was entirely in good faith. But perhaps such a rationalization passed through his mind. It has surely passed through the minds of many other Catholic politicians, particularly those who like to claim that their advocacy of socialized medicine and other left-wing causes shows them to be no less loyal to the teaching of the Church than Catholic pro-lifers are.

It is in any event important to remind ourselves of what the Church actually teaches, and what she teaches is not at all what such liberal Catholics think it is. To be sure, in line with statements made by popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does indeed speak of a “right to medical care” as among those the “political community” has a duty to uphold (2211). But does this entail that universal health care must be funded by and/or administered by the federal government, or indeed by any government? No, it doesn’t. Consider first that the same documents that affirm a “right” to medical care also affirm “rights” to “food, clothing, [and] shelter” (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris 8) and “to private property, to free enterprise, [and] to obtain work and housing” (the Catechism again). But no one claims that the Church teaches that governments have a duty to provide everyone with a government job, or free food, clothing, shelter, or other kinds of property at taxpayer expense, or a guarantee of entrepreneurial opportunities.

Why not? Because the term “right” is simply not used in Catholic moral theology in the crude manner in which modern American liberal politicians like to use it, viz. as expressing a legally enforceable demand on the part of an individual that he be provided with some benefit by government (either in the form of a service funded by the taxpayer or in the form of coercion of those who might otherwise “discriminate” against him). Rather, the theory of rights enshrined in traditional natural law thinking and the traditional Catholic moral theology informed by it is very complex and nuanced, and includes a number of crucial distinctions that must be borne in mind in any analysis of what the magisterial documents of the Church entail. There is, for example, the distinction between objective right – some thing or act one might in some sense have a claim to – and subjective right – the moral power he might have to claim that thing or act he has an objective right to. There is the distinction between natural rights – rights we have simply by virtue of being human – and positive rights – those that exist only given a certain man-made legal framework. There is the distinction between a connatural right – a right one has independently of any conditions – and an acquired right – a right one has given the fulfillment of certain conditions. There is the distinction between an affirmative right – a right to have some good provided to one – and a negative right – a right merely not to be impeded in the pursuit of some good. There is the distinction between a perfect right – a right which is a precondition of the possibility of everyday moral life – and an imperfect right – a right which is not strictly necessary to make everyday moral life possible but which nevertheless considerably facilitates it. Among perfect rights, there are those which must be enforced via the power of the state (e.g. the right not to be killed unjustly) and those which are not appropriately enforced in this way (e.g. the right to be treated with respect by one’s children). Among imperfect rights, there are rights to things strictly due to us (e.g. gratitude from those we have benefited) and rights to things that are not strictly due to us (e.g. to be treated pleasantly by those we come into contact with in day to day life). There are further distinctions to be made, and elaborations and qualifications to be made to the distinctions already made; and a good book on ethics or moral theology of the sort I recommended in an earlier post will spell them out for the interested reader. (Volume I of Cronin’s Science of Ethics is particularly good on this subject, as on so much else.)

The point for present purposes is to emphasize that noting that a magisterial document speaks of a “right” to something by itself does nothing to show that government must provide it. All it shows is that people have a claim of some sort against others – how strong a claim, how that claim is to be respected, whether and to what extent government has a role in ensuring that it is respected, etc. are all further issues requiring careful analysis. This is especially so of something like a “right to medical care,” which, unlike such negative rights as the right of an innocent person not to be killed, involves a positive claim against others that a certain service be provided. Does the right to medical care entail that government itself must provide medical services? Or only that it provide citizens with the means to purchase such services? Must it provide them to all citizens, or only to those otherwise unable to afford them? What level of government is supposed to do this – municipal, state, or federal? Does it require government to force some individuals to become medical doctors, nurses, and the like so that the services can be provided? (They don’t grow on trees, after all.) Or is government involvement really necessary here at all? Is the right in question instead only a right that others provide those who need medical assistance with the means to do so in some way or other – through government if necessary, but through private means if possible? And if so, which persons in particular are supposed to provide this aid – family members and friends, churches and charities, or total strangers too? Merely noting that the Church teaches that people have a “right” to medical care (or to food, shelter, a job, etc.) answers none of these questions.

Now the Church definitely rejects the radical libertarian position that government can never, even in principle, justly intervene to help even the neediest citizens to acquire services of this sort. Catholic social teaching affirms the principle of solidarity, according to which we have, by nature, positive obligations to one another that we did not consent to and that the state as a natural institution can in principle step in to assist us in fulfilling when necessary. But the Church also firmly rejects the leftist tendency to regard governmental action as the preferred or even the only appropriate means of fulfilling our obligations to others. And she firmly rejects too the egalitarian tendency to regard our obligations as extending to all other human beings in an equal way. Contrary to what the libertarian supposes, the individual is not the basic unit of society; contrary to what socialists, communitarians, and many liberals suppose, “society” or “the community” as a whole is not the basic unit either. The family is the basic unit, and it is to our family members that our obligations are the strongest and most direct, with positive obligations to other human beings, though deriving from natural law rather than consent, becoming less strong and less direct the further they are from the family. Hence my obligations to the local community are stronger and more direct than they are to the nation as a whole; and my obligations to the nation as a whole are stronger and more direct than they are to the community of nations.

This approach is enshrined in another central principle of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity, according to which the needs of individuals, families, and local communities ought as a matter of justice to be met as far as possible by those individuals, families, and communities themselves. Here are some key magisterial texts on subsidiarity:

As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno 79)

Neither the State nor any society must ever substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and of intermediate communities at the level on which they can function, nor must they take away the room necessary for their freedom. Hence the Church's social doctrine is opposed to all forms of collectivism. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis Conscientia 73)

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. (John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 48)

Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative… An absent or insufficient recognition of private initiative — in economic matters also — and the failure to recognize its public function, contribute to the undermining of the principle of subsidiarity, as monopolies do as well. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 187)

Various circumstances may make it advisable that the State step in to supply certain functions… In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 188)

And here are some magisterial texts concerning the priority of the family to society as a whole and to the state:

Inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire. (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 13)

The Church considers the family as the first natural society, with underived rights that are proper to it, and places it at the centre of social life. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 211)

A society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism, because within the family the person is always at the centre of attention as an end and never as a means. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 213)

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed… The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family. Every social model that intends to serve the good of man must not overlook the centrality and social responsibility of the family. In their relationship to the family, society and the State are seriously obligated to observe the principle of subsidiarity. In virtue of this principle, public authorities may not take away from the family tasks which it can accomplish well by itself or in free association with other families. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 214)

There can be no question, then, that while the Church allows that government can legitimately intervene in economic life and in other ways come to the assistance of those in need, she also teaches that there is a presumption in justice against such intervention, a presumption which can be overridden only when such intervention is strictly necessary, only to the extent necessary, and only on the part of those governmental institutions which are as close as possible to those receiving the aid in question. This surely follows from the principles of subsidiarity and the priority of the family. And it surely rules out not only libertarianism but also the sorts of policy preferences typical of socialists, social democrats, and egalitarian liberals.

It is important to emphasize that this is not a mere pragmatic consideration. For a central government, or any level of government, to intervene when it is unnecessary for it to do so is not merely not required. It is not merely unwise. It is, in the words of Pius XI, nothing less than an “injustice,”“gravely wrong,” a “grave evil and disturbance of right order.” It is disturbing, then, that the USCCB does not balance its emphasis on the Church’s teaching about the “right to medical care” with equal emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity – a principle which has a longer history in Catholic social teaching than the (very recent) affirmation of a “right to medical care,” and which has a much more sophisticated and worked out theoretical basis in Catholic moral theology and natural law theory than the latter right has ever been given. (Astonishingly, the USCCB’s online summary of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching includes no reference to subsidiarity at all; and its more extended online overview of Catholic social teaching mentions subsidiarity only once, in passing, without explaining what it means.)

In particular, it is disturbing that no consideration of subsidiarity or the rights of the family seems to have informed the USCCB position on the health care bill, which, as I have noted already, seems to allow that the bill is acceptable or even required by Catholic teaching apart from the elements concerning abortion and coverage of illegal immigrants. How does respect for a “right to medical care” justify the federal government forcing every citizen to buy insurance, of a kind the government (rather than parents or individuals generally) decides the citizen needs? How does it justify increasing government power to determine for citizens what sorts of treatments are worth paying for? How does it justify moving towards a de facto monopoly as health insurance companies are transformed into heavily regulated government contractors? How does it justify the bill’s “marriage penalties”? Even apart from considerations of subsidiarity and the independence of the family, it is hard to see how such policies could be justified; in light of those considerations the policies seem positively immoral. Add to that the bill’s staggering increase to the already crushing debt we are facing, the dubious constitutionality of some of its components, the rushed and irresponsible way a transformation of one-sixth of the economy was cobbled together for political reasons without sufficient attention to unforeseen consequences, and the bill’s Rube Goldberg system of bribes and special breaks – as well as the USCCB letter’s admission that the bishops are “not politicians, policy experts or legislative tacticians” and thus without any special competence vis-à-vis the practical side of health care policy – and it becomes mystifying why the USCCB should think that, apart from the matter of abortion, the bill is something to “applaud” (as Cardinal George put it). The bill is not even an improvement on the existing system; it’s not even equally bad. As Steve Burton points out, it takes what is already wrong with the existing system and doubles down on it.

There is a reason why, as then Cardinal Ratzinger once put it, “no episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission.” (The Ratzinger Report, p. 60) It is rather the individual bishop who properly has the role of teacher of the faithful, and “it happens… that with some bishops there is a certain lack of a sense of individual responsibility, and the delegation of his inalienable powers as shepherd and teacher to the structures of the local conference leads to letting what should remain very personal lapse into anonymity.” (Ibid.) The result is that “the search for agreement between the different tendencies and the effort at mediation often yield flattened documents in which decisive positions (where they might be necessary) are weakened.” (p. 61) Ratzinger gives as an example the German bishops’ conference in the 1930s: “The really powerful documents against National Socialism were those that came from individual courageous bishops. The documents of the conference, on the contrary, were often rather wan and too weak with respect to what the tragedy called for.” (Ibid.) Needless to say, the tragedy that occurred last week was by no means comparable to the tragedy that followed upon the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. But it was a tragedy all the same. Where abortion is concerned, the USCCB response seems indeed to have been “rather wan and too weak.” Where the bill’s threat to the principle of subsidiarity is concerned, the USCCB has offered no response at all. And the failure to interpret the “right to medical care” in light of subsidiarity has arguably led Catholics of the Stupak stripe falsely to believe that voting for a health care bill like the one in question was a moral imperative as grave as that of opposition to abortion – and, in particular, that such a vote could be justified in light of Obama’s “executive order” stratagem.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The New Philistinism

Here is a polemical piece on the New Atheism I wrote for The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute. In part it summarizes points I’ve made elsewhere, but it is primarily a discussion of the New Atheists’ tactic (invented by my longtime admirer P. Z. Myers) of shouting “Courtier’s reply!” whenever someone exposes their utter ignorance of what some religious thinker they are criticizing has actually said – a piece of Orwellian doublethink which by itself would suffice to illustrate the extreme decadence into which much secularist “thought” has fallen, if that were not blindingly obvious already. (For the memory impaired, I suppose I need to repeat what I have acknowledged so many times – that not all atheists are worthy of the contempt the “new” atheists so richly deserve. J. L. Mackie, J. J. C. Smart, Quentin Smith, and Jordan Howard Sobel – to take just four examples off the top of my head – are serious thinkers whose work must be treated by the theist with respect. Dawkins, Myers, Harris, Dennett, et al. are not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rota on causation in Aquinas

Michael Rota is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. I commend to you his fine article “Causation,” written for the forthcoming volume The Oxford Handbook to Thomas Aquinas, edited by Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump. This is a topic I address at some length in chapter 2 of Aquinas, but Rota’s essay deals with a few issues I did not get into there and will be very useful for those looking for an introduction to Aquinas’s views and (in brief) how they relate to contemporary philosophical thinking about causation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Oderberg on the First Way

David Oderberg has just updated his website with several important papers, including his excellent new essay “’Whatever is Changing is Being Changed by Something Else’: A Reappraisal of Premise One of the First Way,” which appears in J. Cottingham and P. Hacker, eds., Mind, Method, and Morality: Essays in Honour of Anthony Kenny. Kenny is a fine philosopher and has written many valuable works on Aquinas, but his critique of the Five Ways in his book on the subject is (so some of us would argue) far less powerful than it is often given credit for. I explain some of what is wrong with it in my book Aquinas, and Oderberg responds to Kenny’s attack on the First Way in this new paper.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Here's Hope for you, Mr. Obama

Thank you, everyone, for your very kind words and prayers. Not out of the woods yet, but things are improving. In the meantime, since we could all use a laugh, here's a timely bit of political commentary from Bob Hope:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Blogging note

Got something of a family crisis going on at the moment, so blogging will be light for the next week or so. Any prayers anyone might feel like offering would be much appreciated.

Recovering Sight after Scientism

Seeing that scientism is unsustainable, we must embrace a return to philosophy. Here is the second article in a two-part series on scientism I wrote for Public Discourse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stove on contemporary academic style

Some anonymous fellow in the combox to this post got awfully upset at the assertive tone I sometimes take in my writings. “Unbecoming of a professional philosopher,” and all that. It must kill the poor guy to see so many contemporary academic philosophers smugly assume, without argument, the truth of naturalism or liberalism (say) or casually dismiss religious belief without knowing what its most significant defenders have actually said. And it must be absolutely devastating for him to see all that horrible unprofessional, unphilosophical assertiveness in a Hume, a Nietzsche, or a Russell.

Anyway, his lament reminded me of this passage from David Stove’s The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies:

Much of what the ‘modern nervous’ reader finds abrasive, in nineteenth-century writers, is no more than a masculine and admirable directness. And, when you come right down to it, there simply is no non-Whiggish way of writing, about science or any subject. It is an entirely pointless for an author to indulge in general acknowledgments of his liability to error and ignorance; while he cannot, on obvious logical grounds, point out to us specifically where he errs or is ignorant. He could, of course, conciliate modern nervousness by putting ‘It seems to me that…’ in front of everything he wishes to say. But that is a proceeding equally pointless and vexatious, as well as generating a regress (‘It seems to me that it seems to me that…’) which will prevent him from ever saying anything at all. (pp. 23-4)

The “modern nervousness” of which Stove speaks is a purported reluctance of contemporary thinkers to be too confident in asserting the truth of their opinions, in light of the overthrow of scientific theories once thought to be unchallengeable. Hence the tentativeness and modesty that is – again, purportedly – the hallmark of contemporary academic writing, and which one generally does not find in philosophers of the past. An Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant just tells you straightforwardly what he thinks is true, and why he thinks it. So too did the lesser lights -- Stove's discussion concerns the matter-of-fact confidence of tone that was standard in the Victorian era. Contemporary philosophers like to pretend that no serious member of their guild would ever be so rash as that – that we must hedge every claim, that all we can ever say responsibly is that such-and-such appears very plausible and worthy of consideration and further investigation, that so-and-so seems at least defensible while the opposite view seems hard to defend but hey, who the hell knows for sure, etc. etc.

I say “purported” and “pretend” because this contemporary idealization of tentativeness and intellectual humility is to a large extent phony. Not always, of course, and not on relatively minor issues. But largely, and with respect to the biggest issues; and Stove thus gives the people he is criticizing too much credit (which is saying something, considering Stove’s usual approach). As I’ve already indicated, at least a very great many academics are not the least bit tentative vis-à-vis their commitment to naturalism or left-of-center politics. You will not hear many of them saying “Well, this ‘non-sexist’ ‘inclusive language’ stuff seems pretty sound to me, but of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly expect all students, submitters of journal articles, etc. to adopt that style themselves as if no one could reasonably disagree with it!” You will wait in vain in most faculty lounges to overhear anyone suggest “Gee, I guess it’s just possible that we fling around accusations of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ a bit too freely. I mean, consider the Larry Summers case…” APA members do not generally keep themselves awake at night worrying whether the stigmatizing of universities with “homophobic” hiring policies might reflect a lack of intellectual humility and open-mindedness with respect to natural law arguments against homosexual acts. An alarming number of contemporary philosophers who know nothing about philosophy of religion – as is obvious to any expert in the subject who examines their amateurish forays into it – have no scruples whatsoever about pronouncing confidently that religious belief is intellectually disreputable. Etc. etc. etc.

It’s the old story: As good academics, we should be open-minded, respectful of dissenting views, treating every conclusion as provisional. Except, you know, regarding what “everyone knows” is “just so obvious.” In short, “tentativeness and humility for thee, but not for me.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New from John Haldane

The prolific analytical Thomist philosopher John Haldane has recently published two new books: Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society, and Culture and Reasonable Faith (a collection of recent papers on Thomistic metaphysics and other themes, and a sequel to his earlier collection of essays Faithful Reason). Well worth adding to your reading list.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blinded by Scientism

The problem with scientism is that it is either self-defeating or trivially true. F. A. Hayek helps us to see why. Here is the first of a two-part series on the subject I wrote for Public Discourse. The second installment will appear on Friday.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

From philosophy to misosophy

Thomas Sowell writes, at the beginning of his new book Intellectuals and Society:

Intellect is not wisdom. There can be “unwise intellect,” as Thomas Carlyle characterized the thinking of Harriet Taylor, the friend and later wife of John Stuart Mill. Sheer brainpower – intellect, the capacity to grasp and manipulate complex concepts and ideas – can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions, in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious constructions of the intellect. (p. 1)

So what is wisdom? The ancients and medievals distinguished between theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. To take them in order, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that wisdom – the subject matter of metaphysics – “is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (982a), in particular the “primary things and the causes.” (982b) “For it is through them and from them,” he continues, “that the other things are known and not the latter through the underlying things. And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done. And this is the good for each thing, and in general the best in all natures.” (982b) He adds that such wisdom is sought “for its own sake” rather than “utility” (982b) and that there is something “divine” about it, especially insofar as “god is thought to be among the causes for all things.” (983a)

Theoretical wisdom, in short, is (a) central to metaphysics, (b) to be sought for its own sake rather than utility, and involves knowledge of (c) the ultimate causes of things, especially (d) their “ends” or final causes and (e) their divine source. Practical wisdom for the ancients and medievals is prudence, in the sense of the habitual choosing of those means best suited to realizing the ends nature has set for us as human beings.

Philosophy for the ancients and medievals just is the “love of wisdom,” where wisdom is understood in these senses. How different from “philosophy” as understood by the moderns! With Bacon, Descartes, and their successors, final causes are thrust aside, and utility – knowledge as power, and in particular power to realize, not the ends nature sets for us, but whatever ends we happen to have – takes center stage. The horizons of metaphysics shrink, and its very legitimacy is often called into question. The still-confident theism of the rationalists gives way to the more hesitant theism of the empiricists, then to the weak-tea religiosity of Kant and the idealists, before theism finally ceases to be a central feature of mainstream philosophical thinking altogether by the 20th century. The climax of this long decline is the eliminativist denial of meaning or purpose of any sort whatsoever, and a proud, stubborn ignorance of what the great theists of the past even said. We are left with “philosophy” as the very negation of wisdom as understood by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and indeed by most philosophers historically, as David Conway shows in The Rediscovery of Wisdom). Philosophy as, in effect – and not to put too fine a point on it – misosophy, the hatred of wisdom.

When the fundamental premises of the moderns’ intellectual project – the denial of final causes and of essences – ultimately entail the rejection of the very presuppositions of rationality and morality (see the post on eliminativism linked to above, and, for the full story, The Last Superstition), it is no surprise that intellect and wisdom so frequently come apart in the ways recounted in Sowell’s book (as they did not typically come apart in ancient and medieval thought). Indeed, it is inevitable that they will come apart. The modern intellectual is (to paraphrase General Russel Honoré) metaphysically “stuck on stupid.”

Gee, I thought I was Harlan Ellison…

Seriously, though, I guess this sounds about right. Well, apart from the tech. And the action. And, er, the sales numbers:

I am:
Robert A. Heinlein
Beginning with technological action stories and progressing to epics with religious overtones, this take-no-prisoners writer racked up some huge sales numbers.

Which science fiction writer are you?

(Hat tip: Siris)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part III

Resuming my “recommended reading” series on (mostly) pre-Vatican II works in philosophy and theology – the earlier installments are here and here – we come now to ethics and moral theology. Readers of chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, and the first half of my recent article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” will be familiar with the general moral theory underlying the Neo-Scholastics’ approach to these topics. The works described below all expand on that approach, some developing the theory in greater detail, some applying it to various specific moral issues, and some doing both. Naturally, the works in moral theology also incorporate theological considerations (Catholic ones, specifically). But they too should be of interest to non-Catholics sympathetic with Thomistic natural law theory, because they are all informed by a rigorously worked out philosophical ethics.

On these topics especially, one often hears the Neo-Scholastics dismissed – even, sad to say, by some with a reputation for theological conservatism – for their “manualism,” “legalism,” and committing of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” In my view, none of these criticisms has any force. I explain in the works cited above why there is no “naturalistic fallacy” given a classical metaphysics. The possibility of such a “fallacy” arises only if we take for granted a modern mechanistic philosophy of nature, which, of course, the Neo-Scholastics did not. To reject their alternative classical metaphysics is one thing. But to allow that their metaphysics may well be valid while at the same time insisting that they are guilty of the alleged “fallacy” in question (as “new natural law” theorists appear to do) is simply muddleheaded.

The “legalism” charge is sometimes based on the suggestion that a law-oriented approach to ethics of the sort one finds in Scholastic manuals is a holdover from late medieval nominalism. (Apparently Moses was an Ockhamite – who knew?) The truth, I would say, is rather that there is bound to be a “legal” aspect to any workable system of ethics. If there are objective moral principles, we need to know how to apply them to concrete circumstances, and working this out carefully and systematically entails that casuistry will be a part of any serious moral theory. (It is certainly something the Neo-Scholastics’ critics inevitably engage in themselves when applying their own alternative systems – witness the three gargantuan volumes of “new natural law” pioneer Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus. “Manualism” indeed!)

There is also the fact that the priests for whom the old manuals were largely written needed guidance in the confessional, as did their penitents. And that means, inevitably, a way of telling mortal sin from venial sin – grave matter from light matter, sufficient knowledge from insufficient, sufficient consent from insufficient, in all the areas of human life where we find ourselves tempted. If you don’t like this, blame Catholic doctrine. But if you accept Catholic doctrine – as I do, and as many critics of the Neo-Scholastics do – then, it seems to me, you should not complain about “casuistry,” “legalism,” “manualism,” etc. Here the critics will say that the Neo-Scholastic ethics nevertheless encouraged “moral minimalism,” letting penitents and the faithful in general rest content so long as they stayed within the law. We should aim higher than merely fulfilling our strict moral obligations, the critics tell us. And so we should. But whatever might be true of angels, “new natural law” theorists, nouvelle théologie adepts, et al., we mere flesh-and-blood mortals, when striving to go beyond the moral minimum, find it helpful to know what the minimum is.

“Manualism” is also a bad thing, we are told, because the old Neo-Scholastic works merely repeated each other, peddled a closed system, and thereby stifled theological creativity. One problem with this charge is that it isn’t true; anyone who has actually read the work of the Neo-Scholastics knows that they disagreed about and debated all sorts of things. But it is true that their disagreements took place against a background of agreement on fundamentals. But so what? No one complains that the existence of textbooks of physics, geometry, or logic – which do rather “repeat each other” insofar as the basic material presented does not vary much from book to book – is evidence of a regrettable “manualism.” Nor do contemporary philosophers whine when textbooks on philosophy of mind (say) all tend to approach the subject from a naturalistic point of view (the occasional exception notwithstanding) and address more or less the same issues and arguments. One man’s unreflective prejudice is, apparently, another man’s “settled wisdom” – except that it’s only ever one side, it seems, that’s allowed to see itself the second way.

The thing is this, though: Ethics and theology either comprise objective bodies of knowledge or they do not. If they do – and it is hard to see how a Catholic could deny that they do – then “manualism” is as appropriate here as in other branches of knowledge. To insist otherwise is simply to beg the question against the Scholastic, who regards the classical metaphysical assumptions held in common by Platonists, Aristotelians, and Thomists and other Scholastics as a “perennial philosophy” whose basic tenets are rationally unavoidable, with the details rather than the big picture being what requires serious debate. Obviously, given the culture we live in, defending the big picture has its place too – here and here, for example – but so does working out the implications of the system from within, especially when the priest, the man in the pew, and the man in the street need answers to their moral and theological questions, not expressions of the theologian’s creativity. If you want creativity, take a pottery class. A good theologian is more concerned with rigor, systematic thinking, and fidelity to the deposit of faith, and these the old manuals possess in abundance. Nor will it do to complain (as is often done in certain Catholic circles) that the Neo-Scholastic system is “outdated” or that it fails to speak to “the needs of modern man.” What matters is whether the system is true – and the Neo-Scholastics gave arguments to show that it is, arguments their critics rarely bother to address.

I will end this mini rant by quoting the late Ralph McInerny, from a blurb he provided John Haldane’s Modern Writings on Thomism series of reprinted Scholastic works: “The phrase ‘Scholastic Manual’ has sometimes been used perjoratively. [Yet] some Scholastic Manuals deserve to be read before they are condemned. Indeed, some deserve to be praised.” Amen. And for good measure, here’s another blurb for the same series, from Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr: “Scepticism, philosophical psychology, metaphysical and moral realism, virtue ethics, etc., the standard topics in current Anglo-American philosophy, were all much debated by Thomistic and other Neo-Scholastic philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century: It is a great pleasure to see some of them brought back into the discussion.” Amen again.

On, then, to the recommendations. Let us consider first some introductory works on ethics:

Celestine N. Bittle, Man and Morals

Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason, Second edition

Thomas J. Higgins, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics

John A. Oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science

Henri Renard, The Philosophy of Morality

Renard and Oesterle, which are brief, emphasize moral theory; the other three, which are longer, develop the theory and then apply it to various specific moral issues. Fagothey, the best of those three, is also the one book among those just listed which is still in print. It is elementary, but clear as a bell and systematic, and provides a very solid overview of the structure of classical natural law theory and how it deals with various concrete moral topics (though because it was written half a century ago, it does not address all the currently “hot” topics in applied ethics or all the objections contemporary philosophers might raise – see some of the recommendations at the end of this post for that). Poor Higgins you’ll have to read in a brown wrapper, since he seems to be the favorite whipping boy of “new natural law” writers who would like to consign the Neo-Scholastics to the memory hole. But his book too provides a useful, if elementary, overview. For depth, though, you’ll want to get hold of:

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume I: General Ethics

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume II: Special Ethics

Cronin’s two giant volumes comprise, for my money, the best of the old English-language Neo-Scholastic manuals in ethics. As the subtitles imply, the first volume concerns what is today generally referred to as moral theory, while the second concerns applied ethics. If you could own only a single Neo-Scholastic manual, this big boy is the one to get. It has long been out of print, but affordable copies are available online, and it looks from Amazon that it is also available from at least one of the on-demand reprint publishers (though keep in mind that these outfits vary in the quality of their reprints).

Next we have some introductory books on moral theology:

Francis J. Connell, Outlines of Moral Theology

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology

H. E. Cardinal Roberti, ed., Dictionary of Moral Theology

None of these is still in print, though the most recent reprinting of Jone was not too long ago. Jone and Prümmer are old standbys. Every Catholic moral theorist should own both, though Prümmer is harder to find a cheap copy of. For depth you’ll want to consult:

Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (in five volumes)

Antony Koch and Arthur Preuss, A Handbook of Moral Theology (in five volumes)

John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, Moral Theology: A Complete Course (in two volumes)

I think McHugh and Callan is probably the best of these; certainly it is absolutely packed with information, and you can’t do better if you want a solid grasp of the overall theoretical structure, terminology, and characteristic doctrines of traditional moral theology. But you will have to shop around for it. The Davis volumes, also very useful, are easier to come by and have (mostly) been reprinted now by one of the reprint publishers. Koch-Preuss is a bit tougher to track down – and for some reason, only the first three volumes of it have been reprinted recently.

Among the old moral theology manuals, though, special mention must be made of the most recent of them:

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume I: Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume II: Marriage Questions

The second volume of Ford and Kelly’s outstanding set appeared in 1963. The two volumes do not present a complete treatment of moral theology, but volume 1 treats a number of special topics in depth (such as the various psychological issues underlying questions of culpability, and the debate over the direction of moral theology that would come to a head with Vatican II); and volume 2 comprises by far the best and most thorough treatment of sexual morality (at least in English) that I know of. The books are also very sensitive to ordinary human weakness – Ford was an expert in the treatment of alcoholism, for example – without making of it an excuse for sin; anyone who thinks the manualists were insufficiently “pastoral” has not read Ford and Kelly. As it happens, they also defend a more “lenient” position on at least one issue – the removal of a damaged uterus where no immediate danger to the life of the mother is present – that was an open question at the time they wrote but has since been settled by the Church in a less “lenient” direction (the Church has as of 1993 officially forbidden such removal). But on several still-open questions they provide an excellent, fair-minded analysis of the alternative positions Catholics loyal to the Magisterium of the Church might defend.

The Ford and Kelly volumes too are out of print, though used copies should not be too hard to track down. Someone should reprint them immediately – especially volume 2, since there is (in my view) so little first-rate material currently available on the subject.

Also worth mentioning are some important volumes on questions of political philosophy written from a traditional Catholic natural law theory point of view:

John Eppstein, The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations

Johannes Messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Modern World

Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought

John K. Ryan, Modern War and Basic Ethics

Eppstein and Ryan are especially important in-depth treatments of just war theory (a topic also given briefer but significant treatment in some of the volumes mentioned above, such as Fagothey, Cronin, and McHugh and Callan).

Finally, let me recommend some recent works written from a classical natural law position similar to that of the Neo-Scholastic writers. By far the most important are:

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

David S. Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

The Oderberg volumes are the fullest recent defense of a traditional natural law position against the sorts of objections that might be raised by contemporary analytic philosophers. The volume on applied ethics focuses on “life and death” topics – abortion, war, capital punishment, and the like.

Recent works on Aquinas’s ethics which eschew “new natural law” and other revisionist approaches include:

Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

D. Q. McInerny, A Course in Thomistic Ethics

Fulvio Di Blasi, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas

There, I’ve now given you that most wonderful of gifts – a new excuse to spend enormous gobs of money on books. No need to thank me; just do the same for someone else some time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mood enhancement

Hey, what’s with the long face? Looks like you could use a little pick-me-up. Try a dose or four of Soundscape UK: Here’s “Uptown Groovin’,” “Brand New Day,” “Round Trip,” and “Teapot.” I defy you to stay dour. (SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Reading blogs involves significant risk of having some yutz impose his idiosyncratic tastes on you without warning, especially if he’s been too busy for a few days to write up a proper blog post and needs something to listen to while he tries to rectify the situation.)